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Source: American Diabetes Association

Q. I’ve long lived by the modern low-fat diet. But my friend keeps talking about so-called good fats. What are they, and should I be eating more of them?

A. Indeed, some fats are bad. Saturated fats make our cell membranes stiff, raise cholesterol and blood pressure, and are associated with the development of type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. Trans-fats, which are found in deep-fried foods and commercially baked goods, are very similar to saturated fats in their physical structure and in their bad effects on cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood glucose control. They also raise cardiac mortality rates.

But there’s another kind of fat called essential fatty acids – and they are indeed essential. These unsaturated fats, including omega-3 and omega-6 fats, make our cell membranes more flexible, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce mortality from heart disease. They are also required for the production of certain hormones that are essential for blood clotting, blood pressure control, and eye and brain function.

Unfortunately, humans are unable to make these fatty acids. So we must get them from the food we eat. Cold-water fish, such as bluefish and salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and so are many plants, nuts, and seeds. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in grains, such as corn, along with corn oil and safflower oil, and in the meat of animals that have been fattened on grain. Mother’s milk is also rich in essential fatty acids.

Chewing The Fat About Diabetes

What effect do essential fatty acids have on people with diabetes?

To answer this question, consider the research on fish oil supplements. Many studies show that high levels of omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce the rate of sudden death after heart attack. These effects are thought to occur because omega-3 fatty acids get directly into the cells of the heart, where they lower heart rate and also stabilize the heart’s rhythm.

A study published by Frank Hu and associates in the journal Circulation in April 2003 also showed convincingly that a higher consumption of fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids was associated with less coronary heart disease and mortality in women with diabetes.

Recommendations: Go For Omega

The American Diabetes Association recommends two to three servings of fish per week, in order to obtain adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association has published similar recommendations.

If you are a vegetarian, consider more plant-based products that contain omega-3 fatty acids. And when looking for the perfect cooking oil, choose canola oil, which has the most omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed oil, ground flaxseed meal, and nuts and seeds are also important sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

The ADA also recommends that people with diabetes limit their intake of saturated fat by substituting them with monounsaturated fats and complex carbohydrates for saturated fat. Good sources of monounsaturated fats are nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Monounsaturated fat has been shown to reduce the level of triglycerides and it may improve control of blood glucose.

Sheldon H. Gottlieb, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Division of Cardiology, in Baltimore, Md. He also directs the Diabetes-Heart Failure Program at Johns Hopkins HealthCare, LLC.